Demolition of church with shutters starts after long battle

PHILADELPHIA — Demolition of a 19th-century shuttered church in Philadelphia has begun after years of struggles by some neighbors to save the crumbling structure.

Crews surrounded the 140-year-old St. Laurentius Church in the Fishtown neighborhood last week with scaffolding, fences and barricades. Neighbors gathered Wednesday to take their last look, take photos and point to the huge cross, once attached to the building, which leaned against a fence, KYW reported.

“I don’t want any church, regardless of denomination, to come down,” Margaret Ann Ramsey told KYW. “It has always been part of the area, so it’s sad, especially for the people who belong to this parish.”

Michael Johnson of HC Site Construction told WTXF-TV that the work to dismantle the 50-foot tall spires is done by hand, with material thrown through gutters into the basement to prevent vibration from truck activity.

The city’s permits and inspections department issued a demolition permit nearly a year ago, but officials said moving utility poles and wires surrounding the property took longer than expected. The crews were also told to wait until summer due to classes at a Catholic school next door, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

St. Laurentius is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission has instructed the developer to preserve or rebuild the front of the church in any new development. A zoning plan for a proposed eight-story, 49-unit multi-family home is under appeal, the newspaper reported.

The church was built in 1882 with the donations of Polish immigrants. In 2014, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced its closure, citing “vertical cracks” and a “severely deteriorated” facade that threatened to collapse without a $3.5 million restoration. Supporters said their estimates were only $700,000. The historical commission added the church to the city’s historical register in 2015.

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Concerns arose in 2019 when pieces of the facade crumbled, in one case involving 6,000 pounds (2,720 kilograms) of rock that broke off a spire, punctured steel scaffolding and fell into a gated security zone around the church, leading to the closure of the nearby school for two days.

The Archdiocese spent $135,000 to stabilize the building, and city inspectors said it appeared to be in better shape, but later two engineers hired by the new owner concluded that St. Laurentius had fallen into disrepair, with one having a ” at least partial collapse” predicted in no time. A structural engineer hired by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia said the building had remained standing despite rigorous assessments by some engineers.

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